Darkness drank the streets of Brightwater, while a pale sliver of the moon competed unsuccessfully with the clouds that littered the sky. Doors and windows were shut, and an unearthly calm seemed to grip the city: usually bustling with the movement of goods and people to and from the docks, and the taverns, and the markets—even very late into the evening—the martial law imposed by the Silver Palace practically shut down the city when the sun sank beneath the horizon.
The occasional clop, clop, clop of soldiers’ boots against the cobblestones of Brightwater’s avenues and alleys echoed in the stillness as patrols made their ways through the market district, the warehouse district, the noble district—a vast pattern of security sweeps that caught up everything in its net.
Or, almost everything, at least, for a fisherman can trawl with a net and leave the smallest of the ocean’s creatures un-caught.
Darion of House Albion stole across the city, aided in his flight by a slight stature, dark clothing, and a keen sense of perception—even if he was, admittedly, hampered by a relative ineptness at things that required a degree of stealth or physical finesse. Propelled by a need to minimize the potential political blowback against him, against his family, against his House, from the completion of their adventuring company’s latest mission, he chanced discovery for opportunity.
The rattle and rustle of weapons and armor and the clop, clop, clop of footsteps stayed his momentum, and he ducked into an alley, swallowed by the night and unrevealed by the bright interposition of torches or lanterns. The guards swept by on their patrol and Darion heaved a sigh of relief as the sounds of their movements faded into the distance.
Forward again, and a stiff breeze blew the smell of salt and ocean in from the bay, tinged with the lingering fragments of fish and spices and tar, a clear sign he was close to the warehouse district, if he had needed one. A familiar face near the docks from his time ministering at the hospitals for sea-borne-travelers run by the church of Eidothea, the Sunken Goddess, the young oracle had grown more widely known after several of his prophecies had saved ships and sailors. It was his spurning of the notorious pirate “king”, Elegabalor, which had truly gotten him widespread recognition.
Bereft, however, of his customary robe and accoutrements, lacking even the silver hourglass that marked him as a member of the Curators of the Sands of Time, he was just another shadow in the dark, and safe—at least, of course, so long as a need for close inspection did not present itself.
The docks were in sight, and more heavily patrolled than other areas of the city had been, but a very small creature can fit through the holes in even a tightly woven net, and the half-elf redirected his path around the soldiers, taking a more circuitous route to his destination. He spied the location where he was to meet his contacts—and there set out on a tiny rowboat out into Brightwater Bay—though the powerful stone foundations of the warehouses that housed the city’s wealth eclipsed much of it from view.
He hurried forward and relaxed, just a fraction, as he spied the tiny watercraft and the two who were to take him out into the Bay. A swift exchange of passwords saw him seated aboard the craft—the barest slip of a ship, and perfect for evading a blockade, especially on a dark night such as this—and being borne out over the water.
Darion breathed a little easier as the oars dipped quietly into the sea and propelled them forward, but the ease was replaced with immediate worry as a preternatural silence descended on him, and he noticed there was nothing more to be heard. He looked, alarmed, back at his companions, and was met with a brutal and noiseless blow. An involuntary cry of pain escaped his lips—but though his mouth moved, there was nothing to be heard. Struck again, with more-than-a-little force and malice, he slumped forward in the boat, in a silent heap.
“What do you mean, missing?” Talerion asked. The slight-almond shape of his eyes grew more defined, as his half-elven heritage announced itself when they narrowed in anger. His voice was brittle and strained, “None of us were to leave. We decided it was too dangerous.”
The daggers in his tone flew out at Estrildis, his twin sister, and she visibly flinched. “He was to meet with someone out in the bay,” she said; roused in the middle of the night, her ever-styled hair was mussed, and she drew a scarlet shawl closer around her shoulders, with a shiver. “I received word from a contact that he never made it to his destination.”
A chorus of questions tumbled forth from his companions, the newly-christened Summer Heroes, who had recovered ancient tomes, slain hydras, and averted a war, and now seemed to have lost the one who healed their wounds with energy plucked from the world’s divine fabric. Their thoughts immediately turned to action, and they demanded to know where he had gone so that they could begin their search.
Estrildis shifted uncomfortably. “He was going to meet a contact, out in the bay,” she reiterated, “but he never even made it to the boat that was to take him out, so he must’ve been taken before he got there, somewhere in the city.”
Estrildis’ evasion of Darion’s purpose continued and the group grew increasingly impatient. “We cannot hope to find him if we don’t know where he was going,” Erlindar insisted, his brow creased in concern. Another chorus struck up, of agreement with the wizard, but Darion’s older sister continued to insist that his destination was immaterial. “Please,” she implored, “give me a little time. If I can get any leads on what might’ve happened to him, I will tell you immediately.”
The group dissolved into discussion over the need for haste and the need for information. Mina and Abajeet noted the near-impossibility of starting a search for someone without anything to go on, and the problems of the martial law eventually transformed haste into an impatient and reluctant willingness to wait for Estrildis’ contacts.
Darion was dumped unceremoniously onto the hard, wooden deck of a ship. The movement jolted him back into consciousness, and his vision cleared and focused after a brown hood was roughly removed. The clouds were gone, and the pale light of the moon and the twinkling stars gave the figures standing around him a sickly and haunting glow.
His hands were fastened behind his back and the thick iron bands of manacles bit fiercely into the skin of his wrists and around his feet. His expression melted from surprise and confusion into realization and understanding as he recognized the harsh and unforgiving features of Elegabalor, who sneered and laughed at the Curator’s predicament. His head throbbed from the blow he’d received earlier, and his despair deepened as he noticed the faint outlines of the White Cliffs of Penwith far in the background.
This was almost certainly Elegabalor’s flagship, the Poisoned Fortune, and as it cut through the water, Darion assumed he was being taken to the ruined city of Starll, whose anarchy allowed for the flourishing of piracy. He prayed silently that his companions would find him — and soon — for the pirate-king hadn’t offered a 25,000 gold bounty on Darion because he wanted to have a polite chat.
He shuddered in pain after a vicious kick to his stomach, and he snapped away from speculation on his situation and coughed and choked and coughed, tasks made all the more difficult by the gag that had been stuffed in his mouth and secured with a leather strap tied around his head. “Insolent shit,” Elegabalor said, as a crew member gave the oracle another kick to the midsection, his voice roiling with anger, contempt, and disgust.
The wind whistled by and filled the Poisoned Fortune’s sails, whisking it ever forward. “Take him below,” the pirate-king spat.
Silence reigned over the sitting room of Estrildis’ house, as the news she’d conveyed sank in and tied the tongues of the Summer Heroes. Erlindar interrupted the quiet: “You’re sure?”
“One can never be completely sure,” Estrildis responded, her pretty features pinched in worry, “but yes. I sent my two best people to facilitate the meeting, and their bodies were just found over by the docks. Darion was definitely captured alive, though, and all the evidence is pointing in the same direction.”
Talerion sighed, deeply, and leaned forward, briefly putting his head in his hands, which were in turn supported by elbows-atop-knees. His distress faded, and he looked back up at the group. “We have to go,” he said, “and we have to go now.”
A gnome with brightly colored hair nodded in assent. “They are almost certainly headed back to Starll,” she said, “and their lead on us is not-inconsiderable.” Juru’s tone was strained and serious; one of Darion’s earlier prophecies had saved her and her crew, some years before, and she did not consider the debt repaid. With a clear course of action ahead of them, the group agreed to go, with little discussion and less dissent. Weapons and armor were retrieved, and as the first rays of the dawn’s sun settled on the city, the Summer Heroes were off.
Estrildis stood in the doorway, a lonely and weary figure, and watched them dash off to the docks; none looked back, and after they had diminished into the distance she closed the heavy wooden door. Close listening would’ve heard the clank of the metal lock, and what seemed to be quiet sobbing, but everyone had gone.
Time was hard to track in the bowels of a ship, where tightly-pressed wooden beams kept out the sun as surely as the sea, and even a stint in a dungeon’s cells could be reliably tracked by the regular appearance of gruel and water. But here there was no food, and barely any water, and the dull throbbing pain of his head and the growing ache of his stomach were matched — and, in truth, far surpassed — only by the sinking of sharp metal into flesh, or the twisting of limbs, or the application of hot iron.
After the first few hours, the pain had grown overwhelming, and Darion had vomited and nearly choked to death from the gag. Elegabalor had impatiently demanded its removal, insisting that the oracle survive until his trial in Starll, and since then his mouth had been unencumbered, and any sign of spell-casting was met with a terrible swift blow by the crewmember who hawked ever over him.
His earliest cries of pain had given way to a voice run ragged, though a quiet response to Elegabalor’s ministrations was met with a vastly increased effort on the latter’s part, and so Darion made little attempt to hold them back anymore. The howls seemed to cheer the crew, anyway, and Elegabalor made pointed indication that he wished them to continue.
Through it all, the so-called pirate king asked no questions and sought no answers. Pain for the sake of pain; torture for the sake of torture. The navies of Saltstone and Ystria and Brightwater could not catch him, merchants could not flee him, and an impudent young oracle had denied him the prophecy he demanded — indeed, denied him any prophecy at all, for there was no vision of gold and plunder and murder, as Darion had instead met the pirate with an unbroken silence and shamed him publicly.
Elegabalor seethed at the memory and twisted the white-hot poker further into the half-elf’s thigh, burning past the tatters that remained of his clothes to bite into and sear the flesh. He smiled at the satisfaction, the scars that ran the length of his face puckering the grin into a grotesque grimace.
Space was precious aboard a ship at sea, but plenty had been cleared for this in the cargo hold, and Darion slumped forward in unconsciousness, held mostly upright by the ropes that had been anchored to the hold’s surfaces. Elegabalor withdrew the instrument and pulled a paper-wrapped glass tube from a pocket in his vest. He tossed the healing elixir over the oracle, to the crewmember that had the grisly duty at this hour.
“Revive him. I want him conscious when I have finished eating.”
The crewmember gruffly took Darion’s jaw in hand and dumped the potion in the latter’s mouth. As the liquid curled and swirled through his system, the pain began to subside and the oracle awoke — roused, again, from an unconscious slumber forced on him by agony into a conscious awareness colored by the discomfort of severed sinews re-attaching themselves, bones mending, and flesh knitting.
Sometime later Elegabalor returned. Darion looked up at him, weakly, and noted that the pirate was not alone. A tall, lanky humanoid was with him: he was pale with sunken eyes and a shaved head. Patterns and designs of some bizarre origin had been tattooed around his scalp and neck—and perhaps elsewhere, but his black leather armor denied further ocular investigation.
Elegabalor nodded at the crewmember who’d been tending to Darion. “Leave us,” he commanded. The low-level pirate hastily made his way out, giving the pirate-king’s companion a berth so wide as to move from “respectful” to “fearful”.
The tattooed man began a low incantation in a tongue Darion didn’t recognize. Elegabalor’s eyes glittered with malicious mirth as the chanting continued. Soon, the pale and shaven man withdrew something from a pocket and, as he continued the ritual, traced a symbol in an oozing black liquid onto the oracle’s right hand and down onto his upper arm. The liquid bubbled and hissed and sank into Darion’s skin; he stepped away and, after a few more words in the guttural language, nodded to Elegabalor.
The pirate-king stepped forward and drew a vicious, serpentine dagger in an elegant sweep. He leaned close, with the smell of rich food and drink on his breath, and traced the pattern of the symbol on Darion’s hand and arm with the blade. The metal was old and dull and tore at the half-elf’s flesh, and as he carved over the black outline, Elegabalor said, “Now I have a prophecy for you.”
He finished carving the rune into the oracle and then continued, “When you die,” and at this, his face broke into a wide and hideous grin—briefly, before subsiding, “this is going to send you to the Labyrinth of the Sixth Hell, and bind you there to serve me forever.”
Elegabalor seemed to grow almost wistful, “That’s why my first ship was the Mouth of Hell. You’d be surprised what you can do with a few souls to help power a vessel. Fat merchants and their stupid sailors are hardly worth wasting the ritual on, but you will be most useful.” He seemed to snap of out his reverie, and he handed the dagger to his tattooed companion. “Bring this to Lennith and Jahannam.” The other man nodded and left the cargo area to make his way up.
Elegabalor turned his attention back to Darion and drew a now-familiar weapon from his side. He traced it, almost delicately, along the lines of the oracle’s face, and was pleased to see — at last — genuine fear in Darion’s eyes. “They say the Labyrinth is worse even than the Mindscape,” he said. And with that he grew silent, and the bite of the steel grew stronger.
Wind filled the sails of Juru’s Other Lantern, sending the craft skittering forward across the ocean, the ship’s slim lines cutting through the sea at a pace usually deemed unnecessary for merchants who dealt in legal goods.
A mist surrounded the ship, shielding it from view and vexing the Summer Heroes. “How can you navigate if you cannot see where you are going?” Thalion asked Juru. She had simply motioned at the troll who stood near her. “We can see,” she replied. “No one else sees anything but a fog. And that is the point.”
“But how will we know when we are near?” Thalion pressed. The troll and Juru briefly passed a glance between them, and a bemused smile seemed to pull at the troll’s lips and bare the teeth between his tusks. “We will tell you,” Juru responded, impatiently. Her tone dismissed the ranger, and Thalion turned and left, disappointed.
Talerion stood at the bow of the ship, unmoving and unspeaking, staring into the mists ahead. Erlindar occasionally prevailed upon him to come below and eat, to keep up his strength, but he barely spoke doing those times. Except, of course, for his first outburst, which had occurred as a relative calm settled over the ship once they were well away from Brightwater.
He’d cornered Pirro in one of the ship’s narrow passageways and shoved him forward roughly, into the wall behind. “You were his guard,” Talerion snarled, his forearm pressed against the monk’s neck, his powerful build keeping him pinned in place. “To lose one Curator is a tragedy,” he said, and laughed, with a bitter sarcasm, “but to lose two — two looks like carelessness.”
“But you…” gasped Pirro, “are his brother…”
Rage and angst burned in Talerion’s eyes, and Pirro seized the moment to throw the erstwhile-swashbuckler off. A tussle ensued, and the two were separated with more than a little difficulty. Thereafter Talerion took up his post, and the rest steered clear.
The Poisoned Fortune arrived in Starll’s ruined harbor after about five days of travel, on a crisp and clear morning. Curious onlookers gawked at Elegabalor and his crew, as the former rarely came ashore, and certainly never brought prisoners. Some of the crew quickly set about assembling a stage with a gallows, which brought even more curious pirates.
Elegabalor’s vendetta against the Curator was considered by many to be excessive, but the pirate-king had ostensibly earned the right to excess in his years of depredations, and so as word spread of the coming event a crowd began to form.
Darion had been brusquely cleaned and clad in a white robe, on which was crudely painted a comically-oversized hourglass, an obvious mockery of his order. He was frail, and drawn, and clearly struggling to remain upright, as he stood, bound, at the pirate-king’s side, and Elegabalor had pierced Darion’s left wrist and smeared the resulting blood in a vertical line down the oracle’s face, in another vulgar mockery of the oracle and The Oracle.
The stage rapidly took shape, and after a few hours the spectators had grown numerous and impatient — and the gallows complete, rough, and undoubtedly effective. The Poisoned Fortune’s crew took up places in a half-circle around the front of the stage, and Elegabalor mounted the stairs, followed by an unwilling Darion and a very willing and hooded executioner.
The pirate-king’s speech was surprisingly long-winded and more than a little vainglorious, but this was to be a trial of Darion, the Curators, and the society that was too weak, too soft, to resist the pirates and their power. And Darion was a convenient stand-in for that society — praying to gods and mucking about with fate and books, unable to properly wield a weapon and too stupid to raise a proper and effective defense.
The list of crimes and offenses supposedly committed by Darion was lengthy and his trial little more than a lengthy denunciation that provided a path to a foregone verdict. At the end of it all, Elegabalor sentenced the oracle to death, to the laughter and jeers of the crowd. The executioner gruffly scooped the half-elf up and threw him over his shoulder, a final indignity before death, before carrying him over to the noose, which he then affixed around his neck.
Juru’s Other Lantern slid expertly into Starll’s harbor, deftly avoiding the traps and hazards laid by the pirates with a skill that could only come from experience. The Lantern was not totally unknown in the harbor, and passed without issue, ignored, not least because so many had withdrawn from their ships to observe Elegabalor’s spectacle.
The Summer Heroes were on deck, arrayed in armor, weapons glittering and sharp, while the air crackled with magic and burned with fury. The colorful gnomish ship pulled as near to the shore as it could, its shallow draft and the high tide allowing its personnel practically to jump from deck to beach.
The crowd was distracted and the companions desperate, for Darion’s time was up: The executioner threw the lever near the gallows’ side, and in a moment of stunning bowmanship and serene, internal clarity, Thalion loosed an arrow from his bow that soared through the air and ripped through the noose’s rope. Darion plunged through the trapdoor and landed on the ground beneath the stage with a dull thud, while the crowd’s collective breath was caught for a split second before they realized what had happened.
Surprised at the sheer audacity, the brazenness, of their actions, the crowd of pirates milled about, uncertain what to do. Elegabalor was called the pirate-king, but only his crew owed him any true allegiance, and many in the crowd decided to watch the inevitable bloodbath.
The companions rushed forward, as did Elegabalor’s crew and the pirate-king himself. Juru’s crew struggled to push the crowd of pirates to the side and subdue them — some unruly because they wished to join in the fight, but others because they simply wanted a better view.
Abajeet flew forward, newly-grown dragonfly wings — undoubtedly the product of some recent experiment gone terribly wrong (or terribly right) — propelling her tiny form up and towards the stage. And, as the crowd was jostled out of the way, the two sides clashed.
Erlindar flung spells at the Poisoned Fortune’s crew, trapping some beneath sticky webbing and scorching others with rays of orange and red flame. Mina and Talerion darted forward in hazes of slashing and death, each wielding short swords to devastating effect in decidedly different styles. Thalion snapped off several quick shots in rapid succession before stowing his bow and rushing forward, falchion drawn and deadly, a cold breath of frost and ice rippling and teaming across the blade.
Elegabalor laughed, his fury at the delay of his prize replaced by delight at the chance to take down his foe’s adventuring companions and friends. And — ah! — he spied the oracle’s brother: a bonus, to be sure. If the gods were real, then they were surely good, to allow for such sweet vengeance.
As Mina cut down several of his crew, she garnered Elegabalor’s attention. She lunged and darted, light on her feet and lithe, capable of bringing down creatures many times her size. Her weapon found its mark and drew the pirate-king’s blood; he responded with a brutal counter-assault that stunned her with its force and ferocity, and left her reeling, his attack tearing across the front of her arms and chest and leaving a line of scarlet in its wake.
Thalion rushed over to assist, while Pirro and Talerion tore through the _Fortune_’s lesser members in a veritable whirlwind of fists and blades, respectively, tearing down the wall of living flesh that stood between them and the gallows.
The hooded executioner plucked up the vicious, double-headed axe at his side and jumped down through the trapdoor, clearly intent on finishing his job. Abajeet rushed down after him, the delicacy of her wings a stark contrast to the monstrous features and claws imbued to her by the bubbling mutagens she quaffed before combat. She dove through the trapdoor’s opening and rushed towards the executioner, tearing and slashing at his face. Darion’s eyes widened in surprise at her appearance, and he struggled at his bonds with a renewed vigor.
Their view of those beneath the gallows obscured by the wooden planks around its base, the rest of the Summer Heroes struggled against the _Fortune_’s crew and its captain, claiming pirate after pirate for the kiss of cold, honed steel or the caress of the deadly arcane, but seemingly unable to break through Elegabalor’s defenses and take him down.
His attention diverted from Mina by Thalion’s appearance, the pirate-king proved good his fearsome reputation, bringing down blow after blow on the ranger and giving him red blossoms to match the ones he’d already given the rogue. Beneath the stage, the executioner landed a hideous hit with his axe, its full force and fury nearly swatting the alchemist out of the air completely.
Though the numbers had tilted in the Heroes’ favor, they were taking a drubbing from the pirate-king and the executioner; Talerion was overcome by a brief moment of indecision and, torn between helping Mina and Thalion — who were looking considerably worse for the wear — and finding his brother, he chose the latter and tore into the planks of the stage, roughly shaping an entrance by shattering and breaking the boards.
Drained and weakened by the terrible journey from Brightwater, Darion’s focus and determination slowly took hold and gave root, and with a great effort he broke the bonds that bound him and tore free the gag that silenced him and the leather that hobbled him. He staggered to his feet and looked at Talerion with weary relief, and the latter nodded his head in the direction of his other compatriots, outside the gallows, and Darion nodded back in comprehension and squeezed through an opening in the back of the stage. Rivulets of blood ran down Thalion’s armor, and Darion rushed over, whispering words and weaving silver threads that wrapped themselves around the ranger and began to close his wounds.
The executioner roared in anger and burst through the back of the stage, sending shards and splinters of wood through the air, pressed back by the intensity of Abajeet and Talerion’s assault. As Pirro brought down the last of Elegabalor’s crew, the pirate-king sneered and pivoted to face Darion. “I told you I would silence you forever,” he snarled, and swept his daggers across the unarmored half-elf in a vicious attack that nearly felled the oracle in one blow.
Talerion peripherally noted the event and shouted with outrage; he swung away from the executioner, who utilized the opportunity to land a brutal blow, and ran full tilt at the pirate-king. He raised his shortswords in fraternal fury and brought them down on Elegabalor again and again, hacking off the pirate’s left arm before plunging a sword hilt-deep into his heart.
Elegablor’s body shuddered and blood bubbled up and out of his mouth, and then fell away to the ground as Talerion pulled his weapon back. A dark purple light flashed from his body, and more blood poured from the erstwhile lord of pirates, staining the dirt of the ground with the liquid of his life.
Darion grimaced in pain and clutched his right arm to his chest, while shakily tracing symbols in the air with his left. The air around the executioner glowed briefly and fixed his feet to the ground, forbidding him from fleeing. Pirro bounded to the hooded man and landed blow after blow, and Abajeet tore into him with a gleeful anger, eventually pulling free both throat and mask.
On adrenaline highs, their chests heaving from exertion, the clamor of the pirate crowd came back into focus for the Summer Heroes, as they saw the horde being kept at bay by Juru and her crew. Darion slumped weakly against his brother’s side, who hastily sheathed his swords and gripped the former around his shoulders. “Thank you,” he said, his voice little more than a whisper, “thank you.”